Contributed Commentary by Lindsay Gorrill, CEO of KORE Power
September 12, 2019 | Each day a Google News search brings back fresh, conflicting results: “Lithium-ion is cost effective and the tipping point has arrived” vs. “lithium-ion has constraints that can never be overcome for mass commercialization.” These are seemingly the two general themes that both investors and the media seem to latch onto.
For now, while it’s tempting to be drawn to exciting discussions around the future of solid-state batteries (ASSB) and other emerging battery tech, traditional lithium-ion will remain the battery chemistry of choice until there are significant breakthroughs for real-world applications. This is true for all storage needs that fuel consumer, industrial, and utility applications.
One recurring theme comes in the form of fear mongering articles about running out of lithium, something that is keeping investors who anxiously eyeball emerging sectors like energy storage, on the sidelines. Part of this misconception is due to the freewheeling use of the phrase “rare earth materials” which often looms over discussions about lithium-ion chemistry and the so called “need” for these elusive and prized materials.
Are rare earth elements actually rare themselves? Not exactly. After all, these same rare earth elements—such as yttrium, lanthanum, and terbium—are found in the very items sitting on your desk or in your pocket, including laptops, cell phones, and other personal electronics. Most importantly, there are 17 rare earth elements and none of them are named lithium, cobalt, manganese, or any of the other key components of a lithium-ion battery.
It has become critical for the energy storage, greater battery manufacturing, and investor communities to understand this very point: rare earth means something and not just that there’s an overabundance or underabundance of something, but rather is a classification of elements. Simply put, the minerals used to make lithium-ion batteries so promising may be mislabeled “rare earth” due to their difficulty to access however, few if any of them are actually rare. If they were, wouldn’t you think we’d be having a longer conversation about how people will survive one day without a mobile phone or laptop?
Let’s take a step back: batteries haven’t been around for a long period of time, and lithium-ion batteries have been around for even less. The first lithium-ion batteries were commercialized for consumer use in 1991…1991! To further illustrate this point, consider that the inventor of lithium-ion battery technology, John Goodenough, is not only still alive, but is still developing batteries!
The point here is clear. It makes little sense to be critical of the lithium-ion battery development industry as there is truly no data that indicates we will run out of key materials. Much of the analysis that indicates a lack of lithium is usually tied to historically established mine production, which isn’t accurately reflected in today’s market that is of course rampant with demand. The mining industry will adapt, and so too will the battery technology and subsequently the energy storage sector.
However, the onus is on us—battery technology developers and leaders—to effectively communicate these technical nuances to customers and stakeholders who may be misguided with respect to the industry discourse.
With an emphasis on removing this mischaracterized “problem” from the vernacular in various industry and investor communities, there are very real challenges with respect to supply chain issues for battery development and manufacturing.
For some minerals like cobalt that experience less demand, the challenge isn’t necessary in availability of the element, but accessibility. Cobalt is primarily mined in the Republic of Congo and other parts of Africa that are labeled conflict areas. A quick Google search brings up several references to cobalt being referred to as a rare earth mineral, which isn’t true in either its grouping or necessarily its abundance. Yes, there are issues regarding how much can be mined and how to do it in a way that’s most productive for the region, and safe for its peoples as well as consumers, but the bottom line is that the mineral is there. So, it becomes even more integral for battery development companies to have a very defined mining strategy in order to ensure the product arrives consistently and at a price digestible for partners and customers.
Right now, the biggest challenge facing the lithium-ion and larger battery development discussion has nothing to do with minerals being rare or abundant, but about how consistently developers and manufacturers can access them so as to not disrupt the supply chain. Want to know the real dirty secret facing the energy storage sector? Customers are ordering products that aren’t showing up on time or in working order. Is this a big deal when applied to the burgeoning EV category? Of course. But what about when we as a society have the potential to forever change utility and industrial-scale energy storage?
Simply put—a battery is only as dependable as its ability to show up. Shoring up supply chain deficiencies combined with a better understanding of industry terminology is an important step as the world moves towards renewables.
Lindsay Gorrill is CEO of KORE Power, a developer of high density, high voltage energy storage solutions. He has 28 years of experience in developing and building companies worldwide, with a specialization in bringing companies from conception to market. Lindsay has built mines and manufacturing plants in India, Germany, Canada, and the United States and developed markets for those products worldwide. He can be reached at email@example.com.